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Exploring Hong Kong's Land Between

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(CNN) -- Hong Kong has firmly established an image as a metropolitan powerhouse. Though renowned as a bustling port, a behemoth of business and a mecca for rabid shoppers, Hong Kong offers alluring rustic destinations outside its urban core.

On the peninsula across Victoria Bay from the island of Hong Kong, skyscrapers give way to lush, hilly farmland and peaceful fishing villages in the New Territories. Bordering mainland China, the area is known as "the land between," a name that depicts its history and character, as much as its geography.

China leased the New Territories to Britain in 1898, for 99 years. The English already had control of the southern end of the spit of land, Kowloon Peninsula, and the island of Hong Kong, a spoil of the Opium War five decades earlier. In 1984, Britain agreed it would turn over all of those holdings, when its lease on the New Territories runs out this July.

Although one-third of Hong Kong's population lives in spiffy, planned communities springing up in the New Territories, the area provides many opportunities for respite from urban sprawl. For about $36 (U.S.), the Hong Kong Tourist Association offers a day-long bus tour that offers a glimpse of the New Territories' scenic beauty.

Perhaps nowhere does the hyperkinetic pace of city life seem further away than in the quiet temples that dot the countryside. The Buddhist and Taoist traditions of Hong Kong's ethnic Chinese majority are rooted deeply in rural areas. At temples, the air is thick with the fragrance of incense. Worshipers light three sticks of incense -- one each for the earth, the heavens, and humankind. It's believed that the rising smoke carries prayers and wishes to the heavens.

A visit to Tai Mo Shan ("Big Misty Mountain") might offer an advantage, in that department. At 3, 144 feet, Hong Kong's highest point brushes the clouds and provides a stunning panorama of the region's rugged beauty. On a clear day, visitors can see China's Deep Bay (Hau Hoi) to the east.

The region's rocky coastline harbors a slew of tiny fishing villages. The Hong Kong Tourist Authority bus tour stops in one, where the Tanka Boat People -- descendants of the New Territories' original inhabitants -- continue the daily routine of centuries of fishermen before them.

Fresh fish are among the many goods available at a traditional rural market in Luen Wo. Determined tourists can try bargaining with the vendors for chicken, vegetables and rice. It's a far cry from the high-powered haggling that drives Hong Kong's economy today, and another reminder of the New Territories' place between lands and eras.

The New Territories' neighbor and soon-to-be proprietor lies about a mile away from another stop on the bus tour, a bird sanctuary. ItŐs the closest many tourists will ever come to elegant egrets -- or to China. For many of them, seeing a border-crossing on the way to the sanctuary is a thrill, in light of the upcoming handover of this scenic land and the unanswered questions about what will become of the people and places they have seen.

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